Monday, April 18, 2011

Song of Bias and Prejudice

When I was in eighth grade I was caught with a copy of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring in shop class, by another kid. This “kid” who I will refer to as “Richard,” because that was his name, had been my best friend in sixth grade. Richard had just moved to the area that year and didn’t know anyone, and I adopted him when he was shunned by everyone else. After settling in however, Richard traded me for a better, cooler, best friend the following year. One of the ways he endeared himself to his new circle was by using what he knew, from our best-friend-years, to belittle and humiliate me, which always plays well to a group of twelve-year-olds trying to establish themselves as superior to anything. So when he found me reading a book, his eyes lit up with new potential.

He snatched the paperback and leafed through it. Then formulating his plan of attack declared: “It’s fantasy!”

He let out a laugh more easily associated with a DC comic villain who had a superhero strapped to some Rube Goldberg torture device and about to unleash his ultimate monologue. “You read fantasy!” He said it like I had given him a gift of untold value. “Sullivan reads fantasy books!” He continued addressing the class with a mocking tone. The other students, less worldly than either of us, could not quite see the significance of this discovery. I suppose they were confused by the fact that I read books at all--this usually being a sign of intellectual superiority to the average twelve-year-old male. Nothing to be proud of certainly, but not something to be obviously embarrassed of either.

Irritated at the lack of understanding, Richard turned to the most learned in the room…the shop teacher. “Sullivan is reading a fantasy book. Fantasy books are stupid, aren’t they? Just made up crap. Right?”

I felt my heart sink. He had me. Even at that age I knew fantasies with dwarves and elves weren’t going to have the legitimacy of say, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or To Kill A Mockingbird. Not in a teacher’s eyes. And this guy was a shop teacher, one intellectual step above the gym teacher who got drunk after hours and tried to light the school on fire.

I was doomed.

“Actually,” the teacher began, standing before the class sagely in his knee length gray lab coat. “Fantasy novels are known for often conveying greater truths about the world and the human condition than more realistic novels. And fantasy books make up a large portion of the great classics of literature.”

It was at that moment that I discovered several things. First, that shop teachers aren’t shop teachers because they're too stupid to be anything else. Second, that fantasy books are a lot cooler than I ever thought. Third, that Richard looked really dumb with his mouth hanging open and his face turning red. And fourth, that a lot of people have a tendency to denounce fantasy novels because they think it is cool, and will somehow make them look superior.

Today two kids in a shop class stood up and made fun of George R.R. Martin’s new HBO series. Not so much because it is good or bad, but because it is fantasy. Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times, and Troy Patterson of Slate, both attacked Martin and fantasy in general in the guise of reviewing a television series.

Not wanting to offend anyone, least of all those that might love Martin, I must confess that I'm not a huge Martin fan. His style and mine differ greatly and while I appreciate his talent, it's just not my cup of tea. But these people are not making intelligent comments about his work, or even about the show--they are merely displaying an open prejudice for alternate-world fantasy as a concept. They are standing up in shop class and trying to make themselves look cool.

Martin and the producers of the show don’t deserve this kind of pre-meditated judgment and crucifixion from reviewers who could have written the bulk of their articles in advance of seeing the show. And I find it disheartening to see that same mentality I faced in eighth grade still prevalent in the minds of adults in positions to sway a population’s thoughts.

I’d just like to apologize to Mr. Martin on behalf of those who don’t know enough to realize they should.

13 comments:

  1. I am a fan of both you and Martin. Though I may be best known as an evil GRRM detractor, that has nothing to do with his writing. Your styles may be different but you both brought something new to the table which is not easy in the fantasy genre.

    As for those reviews, they appeared to be premeditated hatchet jobs based, as you say, on a dislike for fantasy. I think the word "snobbish" is appropriate.

    I didn't like the pilot as much as I had hoped I would. As a Martin fan and someone who would welcome more theatrical forays into fantasy realms, I wanted something that would appeal to non readers and non fantasy buffs. Unfortunately, I think they went beyond gritty centered on "gratuitous".

    Therefore, I could have understood negative reviews based on the content. My take on the show was not all that negative, I just think it could have been done a bit better.

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  2. Yours are the only fantasy books I've ever really enjoyed and would recommend to others. I've heard good things about the HBO series (from actual people, not reviewers) ;), so I might give the first book a try. :)

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  3. That's an interesting quote about fantasy books, personally the strongest reason I love the fantasy genre is the world building. When I read a great original fantasy book, I almost feel like my mind is being transported into the imagination of the author. No other genre (except maybe sci-fi) is so in depth, even at its most basic. I love losing myself into a world completely created by the author. Also, I really think that fantasy books have some of the best character building around.

    I really enjoyed the first episode of Game of Thrones. I was actually surprised they were so faithful to the book, though I don't know if that will be a detriment to the show or a big positive. I'm really curious if the episodic form of entertainment is fantasy's future. I was saddened when after Lord of the Rings no one wanted to take a risk on another adult fantasy story. Really the only one was Eragon, and the director/screen writer really raped the story (how could a 600 page book be turned into a 1&1/2 hour movie and not suffer?). In that case, even though the movie sucked it was still profitable. I really think fantasy stories have an amazing potential in visual entertainment, as long as they stay away from being corny.

    Btw, I was always the kid with a big fantasy book in my back pack, pulling it out whenever I had downtime. However no one ever messed with me about it as I was at least a foot taller and maybe a hundred pounds heavier than all of the people in my school. :)

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  4. To be fair, fantasy is TERRIBLE, as a genre. Seventy years ago a guy told his kids some bed time stories about elves and orcs and dark lords. Flash forward to the present, and most fantasy stories have not progressed beyond those basic notions. Plot lines are simple enough for a child to understand. Good guys are good because they believe in good and evil guys are evil because they believe in evil. Fantasy authors paint a ridiculous, black and white picture of the world.

    I'm a fan of Martin mostly because he advances the genre towards something that could conceivably be termed literature.

    I'm a fan of yours because your villains aren't completely one dimensional.

    I love fantasy, but, in my opinion, it does have a deservedly bad reputation. Not because it is "nerdy." But because it's often bad.

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  5. Since I try not to read any of a series until it is all published and available, I stayed away from Thrones. Exceptions: David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, your books.

    As for fantasy as a genre, what's one reader's "bad" is another's "really liked it". Age, reading background, experience and personal taste all posit a like or dislike.

    I well remember times when fantasy novels were considered by many people to be those trashy books about wizards and dragons. What, as opposed to those trashy books about cowboys, ravished Victorian maidens, flying saucers, gloomy gothic castles, high-school sports heroes, crime-solving kids or adults or teenaged scientists? Or how about jungle adventures? In a sense, EVERYTHING was trash unless it had been anointed as "literature" by the powers-that-be.

    Even most best sellers were considered trash by the librarian. Remember Peyton Place? Lolita? Lady Chatterley's Lover? Banned and called trash, all of them.

    You recount a great story and make a good point, both about prejudice and reviewers. Good post.

    oh, and of course I'm not the same Richard, since I'm old enough to be getting Social Security (as long as the GOP lets us have it).

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  6. What a great story. I read the reviews, and I agree with you. It infuriated me that someone pretended to write several hundred seemingly profound words that all boiled down to, "Yuck, fantasy." Any legitimate point the review might have made was completely discredited in my mind at that point.

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  7. I'm glad to see more people posting on this topic. When you first meet someone and they ask you what you do for a living, they are very impressed with you say I'm a full-time novelist. Then when they ask you "oh really what do you write" you see the look of pity on their face when you mention epic fantasy.

    As a writer, fantasy gives me tremendous freedom, and by not being based in "the real world" gives me an opportunity for more fun and whimsy then I have otherwise.

    I love hearing others take on this post - keep them coming!

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  8. It's okay, Belafonte was absolutely crucified for it on Twitter, blogs and various other social media outlets.

    Her review made her look like an utter hack who didn't bother to actually review anything. She ought to be well reprimanded for such tripe.

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  9. "The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise"
    "“Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half."

    Admittedly, the entire "review" was a repulsive display of Bellafonte's personal prejudice and little more... but the particular quotes above really made my blood boil!!
    So supposedly, women are only interested in vapid storylines revolving around romance, gossip or shopping? Offensive!
    (And besides, I've always come across far more fellow female fantasy-buffs :) than fellas anyway?!)

    lol. The second review was almost unreadable - a maze of unnecessary adjectives and poorly constructed sentences (propped up with incessant punctuation marks. Ugh.)
    ...but at least he had the decency to spend the first two-thirds of the article making it -clear- that his reaction was biased because he just can't stand the genre. The review was presented just as the author's personal opinion
    (it certainly wasn't obnoxiously portrayed as the 'universally prevalent' opinion, as it was in Bellafonte's snotty little article.)


    I'm not quite sure why you would pay someone to write a review of something that they are just going to categorically dismiss as rubbish simply because it falls within a particular genre.
    What's the point of getting an 80yr old classical musician to review a death metal album?
    Reviews are there for the benefit of people who -may- be inclined to watch or read whatever it is that's being reviewed.
    ...If the reviewers themselves could NEVER enjoy anything from that genre then the readers are really not going to give a rat's ass about the reviewer's opinion anyway. What a pointless waste of time, money and newspaper space.



    Personally, I really enjoy this series.
    Fantasy's always seemed to be a hard one to bring to the screen in the past.
    It's seldom even attempted in the first place...
    and then on the rare occasion that it -is- attempted it's often a wooden monstrosity that's been "artfully" disguised by some idiot who thinks that if they blow 90% of the production budget on CG and special effects then no one will notice the *terrible* dialogue and corny plotlines or those one-dimensional clichés that are out there masquerading as characters.

    The small screen has massively stepped up the quality of sci-fi productions over the last 10 years - it's good to see that fantasy's joining the party now too, finally :D

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  10. I know what you mean, Michael. I'm still getting the "look" every time I tell someone I write paranormal romance. They invariably roll their eyes, smirk and say "Oh, like Twilight."

    I've learned not to argue. Even though "Enchantment" has no vampires, werewolves or other mythical creatures, it does have magic and a strong love story. So, I just smile and say, "Sort of."

    I wait and see if they ask for more information -- a sure sign of a closet paranormal romance reader. If they ask for more details, I give them my elevator pitch. They invariably lower their voices, lean in closer and ask if it's available as an ebook.

    It is.

    It's too bad that even as adults we still feel compelled to hide our reading habits for fear of ridicule. Thank goodness for Kindle, Nook and iPad that enable us to store a library's worth of books in secret like an alcoholic with a basement full of booze.

    Well, I'm done hiding. My name is Charlotte Abel. I read and write paranormal romance, and I have no intention of stopping.

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  11. Thank goodness for Kindle, Nook and iPad that enable us to store a library's worth of books in secret like an alcoholic with a basement full of booze.

    With a sentence like that, it is more than a little obvious you are a writer, and of the best genre of all...good.

    Thanks for posting

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  12. Thanks Michael! I just bought "The Crown Conspiracy" (Kindle edition) and can't wait to read it.

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  13. I consider religious texts, all world mythologies, and the very earliest written works such as Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Iliad and the Odyssey, works of fantasy. Fantasy, for me, is the oldest and most important form of writing. It expresses the most fundamental truths of humanity. Cultures throughout the world: Greeks, Romans, Indians, Celts, Saxons and Arabs, identify themselves through their fantasy. Anyone who states fantasy is irrelevant or just made-up nonsense is deeply, sadly misinformed.

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